Homily for Christmas I, Dec. 29, 2013
HEROD IS NOT SUPPOSED TO BE A ROLE MODEL!
One of the key elements of traditional Christian doctrine is that Christ became “fully man,” or “fully human.” The Letter to Hebrews says of Christ that “he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect.”
In the 2nd Century, a theologian by the name of Irenaeus made the famous comment: “The glory of God is humankind fully alive.”
What we celebrate at Christmas is the gift of a life lived “fully human,” open to all that is in the dimension of creation; a life lived full of the Spirit, open to all that is divine and transcendent; a human life lived to its full potential.
The new humanity that is manifested in the Christ Child we see contrasted in the person of Herod, a man consumed with ego and power and paranoia, lashing out with violence at anything that threatened him – even children. Herod of Judea is in many ways the king of sleaze, the epitome of corruption and of the pettiness of those whom power corrupts absolutely. A puppet king from an earlier era, the Romans when they took over had left him in a semi-official status – king pretty much in name only. Herod was by all accounts a paranoid, consumed by his own need to be great, given to excess and to extreme cruelty and injustice. Like the pathetic mentor who is threatened by anything that resembles true greatness, and therefore seeks to put it down at every opportunity, Herod does everything he can to squelch and eliminate the competition.
In many ways, in today’s world, Herod would be a model for success. We have made economic prosperity virtually the only criterion for a good life and for a good society, and eliminating the competition, and finding ways to undermine and destroy potential threats, is a huge focus and formula for corporations like Walmart and McDonald’s and Safeway (and many others).
It has become a kind of mindset for an entire generation and we can see the ugly signs of it everywhere. Across the board, love of self has replaced love of neighbour, love of country, love of principle, and love of God. Atheist writer Ayn Rand said “My happiness is not the means to any end. It is the end. It is its own goal. It is its own purpose.” (from Anthem)
Being rich and powerful is good, and it doesn’t matter how you get there. We might recall Gordon Gecko, Michael Douglas’s character in the movie Wall Street, with his famous “greed is good” speech. The current movie The Wolf of Wall Street graphically portrays a recent real-life example of this mentality. It is the law of the jungle – survival of the fittest – and in so many ways these are the stories we celebrate in our world. We applaud those who win and we no longer seem to care very much that they won by cheating or destroying their competition. Our children practice and prepare for this brave new world by playing video games and watching TV programs in which hundreds of other characters are eliminated without any consideration of conscience or consequence.
On that basis, Herod looks like a hero – the role model – taking steps to eliminate the competition, consolidating his power base. As Ayn Rand said, “If any civilization is to survive, it is the morality of altruism that people have to reject.”
But a common thread in all of this is a de-valuing of the human, or the humane element, putting the focus on the process and the result, and the chilling phrase from the movie The Godfather pretty much captures it: “It’s not personal; it’s business.” It seems to me that when human life stops being personal, life on this planet is in serious jeopardy.
The Gospel reveals what happens when that mentality encounters God’s purposes for humanity. At Christmas time we recall the beauty of God’s generosity in the gift to the world of the Christ Child, and our celebration of Christ has traditionally been characterized by giving, not getting. But in our time many, like Herod, have been persuaded – have become convinced — to live for the moment, for themselves, ignorant of or indifferent to the consequences. The Bible and other sacred writings remind us, though, that God’s ways are often in sharp contrast with those of the world. God is not a tyrant or a pirate or a gangster. God does not use or condone those methods, and even though we might like to see God wipe out certain people or even nations, that is not God’s way.
God’s way, we believe, has been revealed in the person of Jesus, and it is a way of grace and compassion, a way of giving not just getting. Unlike the Herods of the world operating out of their grossly inflated egos, serving themselves, Jesus is the one who puts his own self-esteem on the line for the sake of others.
What we should hope to create is the kind of families and communities and society in which people are given the chance and the encouragement and the means to develop to their full potential as human beings, and not merely obliged to serve an economic system that we never question or challenge.
The way of Christ remains a threat, a challenge, to the Herods of this world, to the ones who want to consolidate power in the hands of a few – the ones who want to make it difficult and even dangerous for the little ones to challenge or change (or even share in) the system.
In the kind of world Herod creates, there is always violence, and any new idea becomes a threat that must be eliminated. The mindset of Herod is automatically self-serving and willing to diminish the potential of the community for the sake of the survival of a very few. It amounts to playing God.
The world of Herod is a world of suffering and inhumanity, a world in which all children — even the Son of God — are a threat and at risk.
Herod can and does appear almost anywhere – in political leaders, in business, in the criminal underworld, and also in the Church. Recently I was musing about the way in which Muslims oppress and attack other Muslims, like the Kurds or the Ismaelis, and then quickly realized that this pattern has been typical of Christianity as well, with certain groups feeling paranoid and obliged to eliminate the competition.
But there is another way, another choice, that is present because God is present. And the birth of the Christ Child is God’s ultimate sign that this is so.
The Gospel of Matthew makes the point that the magi – the wise men – once they had found Jesus, and validated who he truly was, did not return to Herod but went home by another way. Once we have experienced the Christ Child, it is imperative that we do not return to Herod, that we search for another way, and that we no longer consent to the ways of injustice and privilege for a few – the way of limited opportunity and harsh retribution for those who dare to be different or to suggest another way of being.
The movie Wall Street quotes Gordon Gecko: “We are smart enough not to buy in to the oldest myth running: love.” But Gordon Gecko was so named because I think he is meant to remind us that we are not meant to be reptiles but human beings. Herod and his kind always seem wise to the ways of the world – they seem crafty and cunning – they seem to know what you have to do to survive in a dog-eat-dog (or lizard-eat-lizard) world. And in a sense they’re right, but one thing such people never seem to question is why it’s such a ruthless world in the first place, and what might happen if we tried another way.
Jesus is a different kind of king, one who does not glorify himself or seek to acquire control over others, but one who brings liberation, justice and joy.
As we contemplate the Slaughter of the Innocents, we must realize that the ugly legacy of Herod’s style of humanity is still being played out, for instance in Pakistan, where girls are not only forbidden to attend school, but they are intimidated, bullied and even killed for doing so.
The terrible account of the slaughter of children is not just a reminder that life is not just sunshine and roses – it is a reminder that there must be another way. The story of Herod and his effort to kill all the children is an ugly reminder that we are not there yet, not fully human, you might say — that we have a long way to go. But what the Gospel writers seem to be trying to say is that the Incarnation is a sign that the mind-blowing reality which they experienced through Christ is not just something we live toward and hope for, but is already established, present, among us. The Kingdom is not just future; it is now.
Herod lives on in the small minds and oppressive tendencies of people like the Taliban and the Ku Klux Klan, he is alive and well in modern corporations, and manifests himself in political and religious leaders alike. But the Spirit of Christ also lives on, despite efforts to quench it in those who press toward a fuller humanity, who see in the person of Jesus the Way, the Truth and the Life.
The Ven. Grant Rodgers+
Isaiah 63:7-9 I will recount the gracious deeds of the Lord, the praiseworthy acts of the Lord, because of all that the Lord has done for us, and the great favor to the house of Israel that he has shown them according to his mercy, according to the abundance of his steadfast love. For he said, “Surely they are my people, children who will not deal falsely”; and he became their savior in all their distress. It was no messenger or angel but his presence that saved them; in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.
Hebrews 2:10-18 It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings. For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters, saying, “I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters, in the midst of the congregation I will praise you.” And again, “I will put my trust in him.” And again, “Here am I and the children whom God has given me.” Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death. For it is clear that he did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham. Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.
Matthew 2:13-23 Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.” When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”